Harper's Finest — June 30, 2014, 11:00 am

Mary McCarthy’s “Artists in Uniform” (1953)

This introduction to “Artists in Uniform” was first published in Radiant Truths, edited by Jeff Sharlet and published by Yale University Press in 2014.

“Artists in Uniform” originally appeared in the March 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine as “Artists in Uniform: A Story by Mary McCarthy.” Almost a year later, in the February 1954 edition of the magazine, McCarthy, a novelist and essayist today remembered best for her Memoirs of a Catholic Schoolgirl, published an addendum. An essay of its own, actually, called “Settling the Colonel’s Hash.” In it she addresses the questions sent to her by readers about “the chief moral or meaning” of the original piece, in which McCarthy describes her encounter with an anti-Semitic colonel and the lunch at which he orders hash. The hash, she explains, is not a symbol of anything; it’s what the colonel ordered. And there are nuns in the piece because there were nuns on the train she shared with the colonel, and the “Mary McCarthy” in the story is depicted as wearing a green dress because McCarthy wore a green dress. That is all.

From Harper’s Magazine, March 1953

From Harper’s Magazine, March 1953

That’s true only if there’s no deeper level to our experience of the world than what you see. But “Artists in Uniform,” a study of perception and its faults, suggests otherwise. McCarthy repeatedly emphasizes the colonel’s “hawklike” face, first as expressive of his cruel manner, then as a contrast to the dull limits of his understanding.

Meanwhile, she worries that he’ll see her green dress as a symbol of bohemianism that will undermine the cool reason of her case against anti-Semitism. She then frets that her alleged bohemianism does, in fact, undermine her cool reason. She works herself up to a theological fervor in her arguments with the colonel only to collapse into confused disbelief. What if the colonel’s anti-Semitism isn’t a matter of “religion”? What if her “anti-anti-Semitism” is its own kind of religious conviction?

Asking these questions, and answering them in the form of a story in which “the chief interest,” she later wrote, “lay in the fact that it happened,” goes to the essence of the fiction of literary nonfiction. “Fiction,” after all, means “to arrange.” McCarthy takes the facts of her encounter and arranges them. She does not make them up. She did wear a green dress. But she tells us about this dress, and then tells us again, shows it to us through her eyes and through her imagination of the colonel’s perception. Likewise the colonel’s ideas about Jews. He actually said these awful things. But the story is McCarthy’s arrangement of the colonel’s utterance of the words and of her changing perception of their meaning. That is, what they mean to the colonel and what they mean to her and what they might mean to you, the reader, observing the pair at lunch, McCarthy with her face “like a map of Ireland” and the colonel with his hash, between them a cloud of perception and misperception they both label “the Jews.”

Read “Artists in Uniform”

Share
Single Page

More from Jeff Sharlet:

From the July 2018 issue

A Flag for Trump’s America

The power of strength

From the October 2013 issue

The Blazing Facts

Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Percentage of TV meteorologists in a University of Texas survey who said they thought global warming was a “scam”:

29

A study concluded that commercial fish stocks may be gone by 2050 as a result of overfishing, pollution, and global climate change.

Nikki Haley resigns; Jamal Khashoggi murdered; Kanye visits the White House

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today